I heard the opening paragraphs of this book at the SCBWI Midsouth conference this past weekend, and as soon as the session ended, I ran out to the “bookstore” Parnassus had set up in the hotel lobby and bought a copy. It took every ounce of my self-control to keep from reading further while the conference continued around me.
The best introduction I can give to this book is the one I received:
When I was little, a kid pointed at me on the playground and shouted, “Her arms fell off!” then ran away screaming in terror to his mom, who had to cuddle him on her lap and rub his head for like ten minutes to get him to calm down. I think, up until then, I hadn’t thought about the idea that my arms must have actually fallen off at some point in my life. I had never really thought about not having arms at all.
My missing arms weren’t an issue for me or my parents. I never once heard either of them say, “Oh, no, Aven can’t possibly do that because that’s only for armed people,” or “Poor Aven is so helpless without arms,” or “Maybe Aven can do that one day, you know, if she ever grows some arms.” They always said things like, “You’ll have to do this differently from other people, but you can manage,” and “I know this is challenging. Keep trying,” and “You’re capable of anything, Aven.”
I had never realized just how different I was until the day that horrible kid shouted about my arms having fallen off. For the first time I found myself aware of my total armlessness, and I guess I felt like I was sort of naked all of a sudden. So I, too, ran to my mom, and she scooped me up and carried me away from the park, allowing my tears and snot to soak her shirt.
Yeah, wow. Just let that sink in for a minute . . .
So, Aven is a thirteen-year-old girl who was born without arms. Her parents are awesome, telling her things like “having arms was totally overrated” and pondering whether there are arm-removal services that they can use. But just after Eighth Grade starts, Aven’s parents move her from her comfortable life in Kansas to Arizona.
Aven tells her tale in the same sassy, sarcastic voice evident in those first paragraphs. She confronts the stares of her classmates with bravery and strength (far more than I remember having in Eighth Grade!). Although many of the kids at her school can’t see past her missing arms, she eventually meets some wonderful friends who have some quirks of their own.
Alex was drawn into this book as quickly as I was. He made me share one of Aven’s tales of how she lost her arms (in a forest fire in Tanzania) to Dad—who has now placed a ban on me reading to the kids in restaurants, since he says I get too excited and the rest of the restaurant patrons didn’t want to hear about arms burned to a crisp, like bacon, while they were eating.
This is a must-read for everyone. It has the potential to open readers’ eyes to their own actions around people who have differences, and to help change those actions for the better. Aven and her friends can guide middle graders who are in the midst of feeling that no one understands them toward accepting and loving themselves. And it’s so important to have well-written books with characters with disabilities available for kids to read.
This is Dusti Bowling’s first book, and I hope we see many, many more from her. Ms. Bowling offers a discussion guide for Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus on her website, www.dustibowling.com.
Have you read any great books lately?